Book Review: Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-Hwan

It’s around 18 months since I completed another book on North Korea – Nothing to Envy. I bought this around the same time. It’s one of the most famous accounts from anyone who lived inside the country and spent time at one of the many notorious gulags. Kang Chol-Hwan was just a boy when his sister, his parents and grandparents were taken to Yodok for 10 years of harrowing incarceration.

But that is not where this story starts. It starts in the years following the end of the Korean War. Thousands of ex-pats fled the country prior to the partition for Japan only to return later when things settled down a bit. The Communist element went to the north following promises from Soviet Russia and the North Korean leadership that the country was a paradise. In the beginning, its economy performed better than the neighbour to the south, a stark contrast to the economic powerhouse that South Korea is today. It was this as well as their Marxist beliefs that saw the writer’s family move to North Korea from Japan as many thousands of others did. Shortly after their arrival, the author was born in Pyongyang.

They were a well-to-do family having made a good life in Japan in a trade. It seemed that despite the hard life in the ultra-communist state, they could live comfortably. That was until the day his grandfather was arrested for seditious activity. N Korea has a rule of three generations. If one member of a family commits a serious crime, the two generations beneath them are incarcerated with them. So begins ten long and difficult years in one of the most famous (but shockingly not the worst) N Korean gulag in the form of Yodok.

Aside from the harrowing story, it’s an enlightening look at Korean culture – how the south and the north differ as well as the ways in which they are similar. He speaks of the propaganda, of needing passes to travel anywhere and the near-religious idol worship of the Kim family.

The second half of the book deals with the release from Yodok on Kim Il Sung’s birthday and their attempts to rehabilitate into normal life. But threats of political action never goes away and following concerns about a further term in Yodok, the writer decides to make his escape.

It’s told in the form of the genre we could call “Mis Lit” – a harrowing story followed by a tale of hope. It’s a formula that works, but in this case, it is at least educational. Painstaking detail of “school” (if we can call it that), public executions and forced labour are all here, as are details of eating rat, cockroaches and earthworms just to stay alive. in all the horror, there are the descriptions of the beautiful landscape around Yodok and the countryside. It is a book of contrasts in more ways than one. It’s also a critique of modern elements of South Korea that appear to be in denial of what takes place beyond this bamboo curtain.

This was written almost 20 years ago and the writer’s hopes for the collapse of the Kim family have sadly not yet been realised.

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